The Best and the Brightest: Conventionally Written History
I am re-reading David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest, and just wanted to comment on its conventionality.
Halberstam writes of “the China tragedy unfold[ing].” [p. 111] But why is the Chinese revolution to be seen as a “tragedy?” He never says, apparently assuming that this description is just common sense, is accurate and irrefutable. But contained in those words are all the flaws of US policy both regarding China and Vietnam, in fact, regarding all of Asia in the aftermath of World War II. Keeping nations, not “losing” nations to communism, would prevent “tragedies,” regardless of whether people living in those nations viewed the revolutions therein as tragic. They might even have seen those revolutions as Americans view their own revolution, as vast improvements over the corrupt regimes they replaced. As General Giap, commander in chief of the Vietnamese military fighting the US said in response to Robert McNamara’s statement that the Vietnam War was a tragedy: “It may have been a tragedy for the US because it was an imperialistic war, but it wasn’t a tragedy for the Vietnamese because it was a war of national liberation and unification.”
Or consider Halberstam’s words, again written without apparently needing any justification, “the fall of China.” [p. 120] Why did its revolution constitute China’s “fall?” Fall from what? Fall to where? Halberstam never says but we can assume that this fall was like Adam and Eve’s fall, which led to their exiting the Garden of Eden. And what was that garden from which the Chinese fell? Well, it had to be the American empire or the American sphere of influence. The Chinese had committed the sin of turning against the American elites and their plans to remake China in the image of the United States.
Throughout Halberstam’s account are such expressions that reveal his conventionality. At another point, he wrote that “US governments [found] themselves prisoners of that rhetoric,” of anti-Communist rhetoric. But it is clear even from Halberstam’s account that US elites weren’t “prisoners” of such rhetoric; they were producers of such rhetoric. They embraced such rhetoric because it served their purposes; for example, in Eisenhower’s inaugural address in 1953 when he said that “the French soldier in Indochina and the American soldier in Korea were fighting the same thing.” [p. 120] And by pre-arrangement, Senator Lyndon Johnson asked Dean Acheson whether he could “comment … where our allies are helping us elsewhere? I mean Indochina.” And Acheson responded: “That is an excellent point. The French have been fighting that battle since World War II.” [p. 120] So, Acheson, who once thought the French war in Vietnam was a colonial war, embraced the rhetoric of anti-communism. If he was a prisoner of such rhetoric, Acheson had incarcerated himself, and the United States, voluntarily.